The sadness I feel at this moment is nothing compared to how the parents of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier must be feeling after the death of their son Monday afternoon. A comatose Otto had been returned to the United States only a week ago.
His crime? Supposedly swiping a poster in a North Korean hotel, never proven.
His punishment? Death.
That was after he was detained at the airport and not allowed to leave with his travel group. A North Korean hack “trial” lasted one hour and sentenced the then 21-year-old to 15 years of hard labor.
Apparently the “hard labor” included torture or abuse or whatever the hell they did that left a young man in a coma for the past 18 months. It certainly wasn’t the concocted story made up by the North Koreans that he supposedly contracted botulism, was given a sleeping pill, and never awoke.
The University of Virginia student had been traveling with a group in China when they took a side trip to North Korea where the poster incident took place. It was never proven to have taken place as the North Koreans claimed. A video shows someone removing the poster and placing it on the floor, leaning it against the wall, which raised the question of whether he had been set up — asked to reach up and “help” remove the poster.
I am emotional tonight because how many of us have not worried about our children when they have traveled outside our control? We work to give them a strong foundation and wings to go out into the world. Most of the time they are safe, but sometimes a tragic event like this happens.
During the 18 months Otto was incarcerated, his parents heard nothing from him. Now they are burying him.
A statement from Fred and Cindy Warmbier was released Monday afternoon:
“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home. Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 pm.
“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost – future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched – Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two – that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.
“We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.
“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable – almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed – he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.
“We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers. We are at peace and at home too.”
I’m angry as I wonder what happened to this young man? What did they do to him? His father believes he was terrorized and brutalized. What went through his mind so far from home, alone in that brutal waste land? Was he set up? Was he a pawn in a larger political game?
He was a son, a big brother with two younger siblings, and salutatorian of his 2013 high school class in Cincinnati, Ohio. When captured by the North Koreans, he was a third year student in UVa’s McIntire School of Commerce working toward a double major in commerce and economics. He would have graduated this year on May 21.
Otto’s UVa family is remembering him. Painted on Beta Bridge on Grounds was the student-inspired message, “Welcome back, Otto. Hoos are with you.”
Teresa Sullivan, UVa President, on Monday released a statement: “It is with great sadness that we learned of Otto’s passing this afternoon. “Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with his family and friends during what has been an incredibly difficult time. He will be missed by all those who knew and loved him.”
On Monday Dr. Larry Sabato, UVa political professor and guru, tweeted, “Rest In Peace, Otto Warmbier. Thank goodness your family had a little time with you before the end. You’ll always be a part of UVa.”
A page has been added to Wikipedia where his story will live on.
This brutal murder was totally senseless, and has struck a nerve with the growing ranks of American parents who are grieving with the Warmbiers.